Mountaineering is an activity that requires extensive planning, constant focus, extended periods of high effort, and generally pushes those climbing towards their mental and physical limits.
These attributes are what makes mountaineering so challenging and potentially dangerous, but are also the reasons it can be so rewarding. It is often this balance between risk and reward that attracts and motivates mountaineers. If not, they are at least aware of this fine balance.
Compared to many other outdoor pursuits, mountaineering is a bit more complicated in terms of preparation. Mountaineers climbing the same peak could be carrying very different gear, may plan on totally different time scales, and may prefer different conditions depending on the route they chose. In general, the knowledge and experience required for a successful mountaineering trip can not be easily summarised on a website such as this. That is why MSC encourages those wishing to get into mountaineering to get the skills required by learning from professional providers, trusted friends, or family members.
Most experienced mountaineers will tell you that it is a life-long journey to fine-tune this craft. It is important to pick objectives that are appropriate for your experience level as you advance. Picking partners you can trust that share your goals and have a similar risk tolerance will put you in a better position to succeed but more importantly make it home to plan the next mission.
What are some of the hazards?
- Avalanches and rockfall are key environmental hazards that require planning and training, as well as management and critical thinking in the field. Rockfall, in particular, is becoming an increasingly present hazard and this will continue to become a greater issue as NZ's glaciers and permanent snow areas retreat.
- Weather has caught many mountaineers out, either by directly putting them at greater risk, or by impacting decision-making to a point where bad calls are made. New Zealand's weather is more dynamic than many popular mountaineering destinations globally, and this can mean shorter and less frequent weather opportunities. Be mindful of the additional hazards that come with trying to squeeze a trip into a tight weather window.
- Inexperience with crampons, or not putting them on when needed, has resulted in many fatalities. Make sure you have the right equipment and know how to use it correctly.
- Many falls which lead to a rescue or fatality were on the descent. These may have been due to inattention to the task and risks present (mentally switching off), fatigue, or not staying together with climbing partners.
- Human Factors, especially commitment, scarcity, and expert halo heuristic traps are commonly present in the lead-up to mountaineering fatalities. Be able to recognise these traps, and know how to address them in the field.
Prepare for your trip
Mountaineering is a high-risk outdoor activity that takes careful planning, training, and constant focus on the day.
- What route are you planning to take? What are the key decision-making points?
- How long will it take you? Is the weather window long enough?
- Do you have enough experience to climb this mountain/route?
- Is it within the limits of everyone in the group? Are your goals aligned?
- Have you factored in enough time in case it takes longer than expected?
- Are you prepared to turn around or move to a safer plan B if conditions aren't as planned?
Get the skills
You should have enough training and practical experience before going on your own trip. There are plenty of ways to get started on building your skill set.
- Watch our Alpine Snow Skills Series | This is a 5-part series to briefly introduce you to some of the skills and equipment you will need in alpine terrain. You can watch them all here.
- Get engaged with the NZ mountaineering community | Join a club, talk to experienced people or go on a guided trip. This is a great way to learn first-hand and ease your way into the mountains with guidance.
- Find an Alpine/ Mountaineering Course | This will give you the skills to safely explore alpine environments. You can find a selection of providers here.
- Find an Avalanche Course | These courses will educate you on avalanche safety and rescue skills and are essential for backcountry alpine travel where there is snow cover. Explore options near you.
Go when the timing is right
Choose a trip that aligns with your skills, the group's ability, the current conditions, and the expected weather. Discuss, agree on and employ suitable travel options/modes in terrain where falling is possible and could result in serious consequences. Pay particular attention to moderate terrain where typically mountaineers would travel un-roped.
Only go if the conditions are suitable. You should regularly check these leading up to your trip and make a decision on the day. You should also be assessing conditions during your trip and be prepared to turn back or move to plan B if conditions aren't right.
Take the essential equipment to stay safe
- Ice Axe
- Climbing Pack
- Headtorch with extra batteries
- PLB/Satellite Messenger
- Map, compass, and any other navigation device
- Other climbing gear to match your objective
- Emergency bivvy/shelter
- First aid kit
- Cookset/Water making equipment
- Proper clothing for the elements
- Extra food in case you are stuck in a location longer than expected.
Avalanche Rescue Equipment
- Snow Probe
- Snow Shovel (this can be useful for many other situations)
- Avalanche Transceiver
Learn more about these items in our video.
On your trip
Stay aware of your surroundings
Continue to check the conditions and be self-aware along the way. Make a plan before you leave about what information on conditions you'll look for when in the backcountry. You can always turn back if conditions aren't on.
Be aware of human factors/heuristic traps
Things like commitment, familiarity, and the need to feel accepted can easily cloud our judgment and cause us to ignore warning signs. Be aware of these social pressures and constantly consider whether they are beginning to drive your decision-making.
Employ strategies for identifying and managing fatigue. Ensure this is considered as part of any pre-trip planning and pay this element the due respect it deserves during your trip. Allow time for adequate breaks to rest and take on food/water. Most importantly ensure the culture surrounding your trip allows for topics such as fatigue management to be part of your conversations and communication.
What to do next
Continue your preparation with our online resources, there is still plenty to learn to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip!
Explore our resources
- Try our Online Avalanche Course | Here you can learn about avalanches and how to keep yourself safe
- Watch our Videos | Learn about crampons, ice axes, avalanche awareness, and basic route finding to get you started
- Get the skills | in Navigation, Avalanche Awareness and more essentials in our Skills Section
- Attend a course | Find a provider near you.
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